Wanted: Avid Listener

 

He could hear her voice, even with his ears full of screams. Despite his efforts, the voice was no louder or clearer than what he had first begun to hear it speak. Some words echoed, and if he listened hard enough he was able to decipher some of the words, to begin to make sense what t was she was asking of him. However, most of her words were still too faint, still beyond his ability to comprehend. Sometimes he wanted to cry, to scream so long and so loud that it hurt. Until his throat was raw and bloody. All in the hopes the somehow, his own suffering would make the words come more clearly.

Shakily, he ran his hands down his unkempt face, over coarse whiskers and craggy skin, leaving trails of filth in the wake of his fingers. He repeated the actions over and over, until his face was just as dirty as his hands, just as imperfect and flawed. He did it without seeming to take notice, sweat from his brown joining in to the mess.

The room where he lived and did most of his work was barely lit, the merger light emanating from the crude braziers and a single lantern which hung from the lower timber rafters cast more shadows than illumination. Despite the small space, it was by no means a hovel. He strived to keep it clean especially when he had guests. They were the ones who ended up making a mess of the place, who abused his generous hospitality. It wasn’t as if he asked for much from his guests in exchange for all that he did for from. He was a humble man, and his requests were no sort of imposition. He didn’t ask them for money, or favours exchange for his generosity. He would give anything that was asked of him, his possessions were of little consequence to him, and he would offer every last piece of himself and all that was his to anyone who asked, provided they did not seek it out of personal greed.

Truthfully speaking, he felt that was he asked from his guests, his only request in return for all that he could possibly give, was small and of little consequence. What he asked was so small intact, that he found it absolutely astounding the amount of times his request was refused. All his guests had to do to fully benefit from all he had to offer, was to sit quietly for a time and listen to his stories. He did admit that some of his stories could be considered boring and sad, as some were tales of miseries and sadness long passed.

But those stories were just the beginning. Everything had changed for him, and for his stories, when she had started to speak to him. She was his fire, his muse, his very reason to continue living, and if only they would listen to his stories of her, they would see how inspiring and awe-inspiring she truly was. He just needed his guests to under what she meant to him.

All of his guests so far seemed to get excited, elated, and hopeful when he told them about how sh had some to save him. For a brief, shining moment, they would forget about themselves, empathize with him, and he was certain that there was nothing better in the whole world than seeing how she inspired that wide-eyed glee in others, just as she had in him.

He loved to watch those eyes light up, and fill with tears of pure joy when he told them, no, when he asked them to help him understand what it was she whispered into his ear now, in the dark of night when no one else was around. Her voice had long begun to fade beyond his hearing. whether this was due to age, or some other ailment, he did not know, but it burned at his very soul, and sent waves of sadness over him when he thought that one day soon, he would no longer even be able to hear her whispers.

He rejoiced, danced as much as his cold bones would allow him, when his guests, like him, cried out for her to come and save them, just as she had saved him. They begged her to save them from their own suffering. It was a new miracle, each and every time, and he felt as if hope returned to him when they agreed to help him, when they dropped to their knees and begged for him to let them help.

But, as with so many times in his life, hope and joy were short-lived. without fail, it seemed, each of his guests would prove to be incapable of keeping their word. Liars and thieves were prolific, and they sought to take even what little he had left in the world. So far, every one of his guests had proven incapable, unable to hear the full glory of her voice, unable to hear what she was saying with any clarity, some even proving more hard of hearing than him was. Some guests had even thrown his hospitality in his face, trying their backs on their promises and their pleas. They would lie to him about her words; he was never certain why. Some, he thought, simply were going deaf, while others like hard her voice and wanted to keep the joy and comfort all to themselves.

It was always the liars, he had come to discover, that could hearth voice of his saviour clearly. Liars were never to be tolerated, they spat in both his face and her face, trying to take everything the were offered without fulfilling their promises and his request in any meaningful way. She knew who the liars were as well, and it was when they were present that he voice surged most clearly to him these days, like a bell in the fog off the sea. She advised him not to trust the liars, they were going to destroy him and steal all that he had fought so long and so hard for. They would steal her away as well, if he gave them the chance.

Eventually, when the lairs and the deaf knew that he could tell they were not being truthful, they would turn violently against him, breaking hospitality. They would try to weasel out of their agreements, out of their promises. They would try to sway him with offerings, bribing him with things that he did not want, that he had no need of. Those guests always left before the sun rose the morning after they came to visit. They would go, and leave him with their mess.

The screams that evening were almost completely silenced when he finally felt her presence, her voice at his ear as her words ghosted past his conscious mind. It was elusive and ephemeral, and her touch as she spoke in his ear was quickly fading, words cutting in and out, half -formed. They told him that he had been right, these guests had been unable to hear her as well, unable to take her words and bring them to the light where he wold be able to fully understand them once again. They had left a speculator mess behind as well, strewn and splashed across the floor with no regard for that fact that it would take him hours to clean.

Picking up the broken ladle he had used to serve that nights fare, he returned to his task, guided ever neared to the realization that her voice might now be forever beyond his grasp. Perhaps, once he had really tidied up, tomorrow’s guest would be different, would prove to finally be able to help him discover her words, to find out what it was she was asking off him now. How best to serve his lady. Perhaps, they would finally be able to hear her as well, if he opened their ears a little further.  As he began the task piling the broken bits of meat together, he ran his hand over his face, trying to clear some of the thick blood from his whiskers. The liars were always the ones who left him with the biggest mess, and even less of his hard-won sanity.

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Poetry Tuesday: Day Dreary

DAY DREARY

Watching the sun rise over the tired city trees.

Hot steam bringing life to walking dead dreams,

used to follow the current, subdued.

Left to rot.

Arrive on time,

Day.

Turn and press the button,

Month.

The same bleeds out the difference,

Quells the imaginary possibility.

The adventure is pushed into he broom closet,

Locked tight and covered in cobwebs behind

A disused mop bucket.

Flavourless tuna salad lunch.

Monday  is every day, repeating over.

Friday is just a Monday in sheep’s clothing,

Closing an leaving illusory promises

To re-assessing the dreams of adventure.

But Saturday dawns, yawning with a fake

Beatitude of hardship, a covered reality of a different

Kind of work disguised as breaking.

It too is just as routine,

As the sun rising over still tired trees in a half sleeping city.

Waiting for something to break the cover on the safety

Glass alarm of freedom.

A Dangerous gambit to destroy the safely systematic, routine, boring.

Life.

-Megan

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Avidas, Readers! Spotlight on The Return of Rat Queens

For the past two years, I have been an absolute regular at my local comic store. They know my name, and pretty much the exact time I come in each week. Usually they have my comics already set aside for me, and they know my tastes as well, or even better, than I do when it comes to picking out new titles. They are really some of the most amazing people I have the opportunity to know. They, as much as the books I read, are why I love my weekly experience, and look forward the chance to chat and catch up with them.

This week I am extremely excited to go for my weekly pick up on Wednesday, as I know that there will be something very special waiting for me. Something that I have giddily been anticipating.

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Illustration by Stjepan Sejic

March 1st, 2017, marks the relaunch of Rat Queens, with a new number one, a new arc , and a new artist at the helm. Rat Queens is a series that focuses largely on a party of female adventurers. However, instead of feeling like something pulled from the pages of Dragon Magazine or Dragon Lance, the Rat Queens definitely feels more like a group of very close friends, sitting around a table and playing an honest to goodness game of Dungeons and Dragons, no holds barred; meaning it is rife with foul language, sex, drugs, ridiculous conflict resolution, and just a shit load of absolute crazy. The four main characters, all females, are exciting characters, and their pasts and presents thrilling and engaging. In the sea of super heroes and scantily clad women of fantasy, Rat Queens provides a breath of fresh air for the genre. As Image Comics is fairly creator run when it comes to story and content, it offers some truly inspired and entertaining series, featuring powerful women who are no longer just the arm candy or the damsels in distress, or even token members of a cast.

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Personally, I am a fan of Hannah, the foul-mouthed, dark magic welding mage (Elf? Pact born? Still so much to know about her, though she is currently defined as ‘elf’ on the wiki page), as well as Dee, the former cultist cleric who both kicks ass and saves it. Maybe it is because these two resonate with the types of characters I like to play. Either way, I absolutely loves the first fun, and still fondly page through the previous columns when I get the chance.

Written by Kurtis Wiebe, this series has been one of the shining lights of my collection, and a series that I recommend (and force) on all my friends.

Now, this is a relaunch of the series with a brand new number one. In the previous run, writer Kurtis Wiebe ran into a few issues with artists, including deciding to take Roc Upchurch out of the position due to an arrest for spousal battery ( according to an interview, Wiebe states that the decision was made because it didn’t make sense to have that kind of baggage going on with a series of strong female characters and views), short turn over, and ‘creative differences’ ( thought some of the events surrounding the parting with the last series artist remain a little hazy). This eventually led to a hiatus, with a mid story arc drop off.

For this new birth of the series, Wiebe has teamed up with artist Owen Gieni, who in my option is absolutely astounding, both as an artist and an individual. Gieni’s other series include Shutter and Manifest Destiny, both of which I would recommend. I have the luck to meet both Wiebe and Gieni in September 2016, when they attended that Saskatoon Entertainment Expo, and I spent a fair bit of my time fan-girling between their tables and the line up to meet Carrie Fisher.

As with any relaunch of a series, there is always a little bit of hesitance to immediately pick up an issue. Anyone who has been reading comics or graphic novels knows that sometimes a relaunch of a title is worse than simply letting it fade away. Take both Marvel and DC, who have revamped and relaunched some of their major titles so often that there’s an absolute spider web of ‘continuity’, and often gaps that leave the reader wondering which past is relevant and which can be left aside. From what had been put out there in regard to this relaunch, I am quite certain that this will not be the case with Rat Queens.

Wiebe, Gieni, and a host of other comics creators have lent their hands to the relaunch of the series, putting out weekly additional content in the form of comic shorts (My personal favourite is by Stjepah Sejic, best known for insanely beautiful artwork, comics, and Sunstonewhich just wrapped its 5 book arc this January). All of that additional content can either be found on Wiebe’s web page, or Gieni’s Twitter ( @owengieni), as the prep for the imminent launch date. Up until launch day, Wiebe and Owen are celebrating the 12 days of Queensmas, showcasing a new piece of art each day. These only serve to make it even more difficult to wait to pick up that first issue this Wednesday.

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The creators have said that the relaunch of Rat Queens will be a pick up, rather than a complete revamping of the mythos and lore of the series. Hannah will still be brooding, mysterious, and likely using magic that she probably should not be. Dee and Violet will bring the hurt. Betty will, of course, bring the mischievousness and the drugs. It is also my hopes that The Dave’s will be back and more ready than ever to Dave it up. Some of the promotional content has also hinted at the fact that there may even be a new member, the impressive Braga. With the promises that have been leaking from the helm team of Rat Queens, this is going to be something that every fan, new and old, will enjoy.

With Wiebe continuing to write the series, and with Owen Gieni as the main artist, this is a relaunch that I am absolutely psyched up for. With Wiebe’s ability to write strong, motivated female characters who leap of the page, and Gieni’s talent with colours and drawing the eye across the story, the world of the Rat Queens will once again come alive.

If you are a fan of the series and were saddened by the hiatus and the break off of the previous story, or a fan of other work by Owen Gieni or Kurtis Wiebe, I would encourage you to get to your local comic book store and pick up the first issue when is comes out, March 1st, 2017.

Beware N’rygoth, happy reading, and Sidas,

Megan

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Protocol

Protocol

Three blinked at the reflection in the mirror, focusing on the grey eyes staring back from the other side. Nothing was different, nothing was out of place. When Three has woken up that morning, to get ready for school as usual, it had been with a strange feeling that something had shifted, but no matter how Three looked at it, everything seemed just the same as it had the day before, the week before, the month before, and the year before. Nothing has changed.

Turning off the light, Three went to the kitchen, once again, the same routine as every other morning. There was a protein shake sitting on the counter, next to a lunch bag and a copy of the daily paper. As always, the front page flashed in warning; bold, red letters warned the readers of the graphic content, alerting them that what lay beyond the front page was not suited for most. The articles would likely offend many, or turn the stomach. Instead, the front page suggested that all the reader really needed to know was that the weather was going to be pleasant, and that the two district teams that had met in their races the previous night had tied, and decided to be friends and compete again the next night. With that, it brought the collective all-time records for both teams to 0 Wins- 0 Losses- 2,950 Ties, a respectable performance history for both teams.

Three disregarded the paper, as always, and made to grab the protein shake. Three’s hand hesitated a moment, and instead of grabbing the drink, took the lunch bag instead. Three was not really feeling exceptionally hungry, so it would not do to waste valuable time on the drink. Ready for the day, Three approached the front door. As the door opened, an option warning popped up: “YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN BREAKFAST. PLEASE RETURN.” The warning, while optical, blocked Three’s entire field of vision, and the entire doorway. Three hit the exit button, but the warning merely re-appeared, effectively keeping Three from leaving the house to begin the journey to school. With a sigh, Three returned to the counter and picked up the shake, and the warning window disappeared. With the way no longer blocked, Three could leave without further issue, though the time for travel had been cut considerable closer than was comfortable.

Leaving the house, Three walked for at least a dozen yards before stopping, setting the still full protein shake down on the barrier that separated the walking routes. These barriers kept students of Three’s age and younger separated from the adults walking to work, the transports carrying goods and supplied, and the older students on their way to the secondary school building.

Other students feel into line on the path to the school. All walking the same way at the same pace. They said good morning, exchanged their happiness over the outcome of the game the night before, and contemplated their lessons and exercises for the day, which would be both pleasant and informative. No one spoke about the news beyond the front page of the paper.

It was the exact same as the day before. The same as always, unchanged in pattern. Still, Three continued to experience that same nagging sense of weight and shift, as if something was fundamentally different from  what it had been before.

Once all the students were inside and seated at their desks, the bell rang. As it happened each morning, their daily exam popped up on their desktops. Each student was faced with a series of four questions. They were the same as always, there was no variation, no change.

  1. How are you feeling? Well (correct)
  2. Who won last night? Both teams (Correct)
  3. Who holds the highest office in the government? The Chancellor Supreme (correct)
  4. Did you eat your breakfast?

At the last question, Three paused. Three had never paused before. Here it was. This was the difference, the shift that had been brushing up against the back on Three’s consciousness since waking. It had been felt before it had even occurred; the effect before the action that would generate it. It was as if Three had made this decision before it had even been a decision to make.

With a quick eye dart, Three glanced around the room at the others; all of their screens flashed a pleasant green, indicated that they had finished their daily exam. Indicating that every answer was uniform, correct. Tentatively, with a fluttering of unknown emotions, Three purposefully wrote his answer.

4.         Did you eat your breakfast? No.

It took a moment, but Three’s screen winked closed, and a new window popped up. First it opened in front of Three, and then in a cascade of pings across the room to the others, all looking straight ahead. The new window advised the students that everything was fine. And additional subset window opened in front of Three’s eyes, containing a set of three very clear instructions: Three was to remain quiet; to remain seated with hands placed flat on the desk; and that Three was to await the arrival of a task force which was being dispatched to remedy the detected compliance violation.

It became obvious that Three was the only one to receive these instruction, as the rest of the students remained calmly seated, looking straight ahead as if nothing as out of the ordinary. Three drew a deep breath, as for the second time that day, a wave of emotions that had never previously been felt took hold. Three had somehow knows, right from waking, that the world was shifting. As it turned out, it was only Three’s world that was shifting, and Three had been the one to set into free fall. Looking from the other students to the window, Three’s feet shifted a fraction of an inch. It only took a breath for Three to make another decision that had never been made before, another change to the sameness and repetition of the routine. With a quick breath, Three made a break for the open door.

Change was within Three’s reach, the door felt as if it were just there, waiting. Suddenly, Three was sprawling forward, reached by sensations that had previously been unknown, to which Three could ascribe no known words or past experience. The sensations forced legs  and arms to contract and lock awkwardly, no longer responding to the brains impulses to move. They sensations caused Three’s teeth to clamps down hard, pinching cheek tightly between strong molars. A second later, and that uncomfortable sensation was paired with the explosion of stars, as Three’s head met the ground with a thud, ears ringing. With vision swimming in and out of focus, Three felt hands grab that collar of their shirt, hefting them up from the ground, holding them suspended.

As three’s hearing returned, head pounding, there was the sound of a voice, speaking in controlled, clipped tones. As the voice spoke, they began to move, Three in tow above the ground. “Unit Three is contained. We will bring them in for evaluation. All other units in this zone appear to be functioning as normal, all coding pinging green. We believe this is an isolated incident. Please be advised to re-initialize protocol in 90 seconds. Extraction complete. Alpha Team signing off.”

Not a single student in the classroom seemed to notice what was going o, focused on the screens in front of their eyes, as if the words “All is well” were enough to keep them from curiously investigating the ruckus taking place behind them.

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Last Thursday Review: Locke & Key Small World

SPOILER WARNING: Be mindful, there may be spoilers here. Turn back if you are as eager to read this graphic novel without and poor knowledge of the content,

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Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

When I first stumbled on Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key in my local comic store, I wasn’t sure what to think, aside from the fact that the first couple of pages were interesting enough to warrant that I would spend my hard-earned money on it. At the time, going to school full-time for an undergraduate degree and working in a video store, I was rather tight about how I spent my little bit of cash.

But that day, I went home with a winner that would quite literally become one of the few collections that I was hooked on enough, at the time, to go out and buy immediately, no matter what was in my bank account or where I was working.

Now, in 2017, Hill and Rodriquez have tempted those who fell in love with the twisted history of Key House and Lovecraft, with another shiny hardcover, Locke and Key: Small World. As far as size goes, this column does feel quite short, clocking in at under 25 pages of comic. So, rather than a full size story, the reader is greater with what feels like a single issue of a comic, sweetened with a few extras (art, original script, adaptation views, and interviews). All in all, it barely sates the appetite for new content that fans of the series (such as myself) have been craving since the end of the original series. However, in the contained interview, Hill and Rodriguez promise that there are more stories to come entering around these characters, Key House, and Lovecraft. So far, this seems limited to some short stories and collections, with the speculation of another six arc story (no commitment to that as of yet, it seems to just be an idea.) They also promise that the long-awaited television series with IDW Entertainment is still on the table.

The story itself is currently self-contained, taking you through a single experience by some of the Locke ancestors. The art, as always, is beautifully rendered, the detail excellent and the colour vivid.

Despite this, I found that the story itself was somewhat lacking. As a current ‘stand alone’ tale, Small World is just that, small. Where previously readers were drawn in to Bode, Tyler, and Kinsey, and thrown right into the darkness within the first 5 pages of Welcome to LovecraftSmall World does not seem to lend itself to the same connection of character to reader. The Locke children seem quite cookie cutter. It seems as if a bit of connection was sacrificed in order to keep the story short and sweet. They are mapped on the page with care, but there seems to be pieces missing where the reader is supposed to feel for them. Each is most definitely individual, but aside from the stereotypical archetypes (the little lady, the trouble maker, the sage, and the fighter), there wasn’t much that seemed to make them a part of Locke and Key save for the fact that they are cast as part of the long line of Lockes to live in Keyhouse. At times, aside from the name and a double page decimated to introducing the readers to the new (or older) Locke family, it seems as if it could have been anyone waltzing across the page in the rolls.

The story, as said earlier, is linear. There are no flash backs, no flash forwards, and the whole tale seems to take place over perhaps the entirety of 3 hours, with very little fanfare, and even less exploitation of the previous dark atmosphere created by Hill and Rodriguez. The threat is quite mundane, only made a threat by the mishandling of a key. There is very little anxiety created by the monster that shows up, and the end is abrupt (though personally, I definitely grinned just a bit, because it was totally something that felt in tune with the level of threat created). Maybe this is because the family is not dealing , or has not yet dealt, with the true nature and breadth of what lies buried under Keyhouse, and as such the level of threat cannot reasonably be presented on the same scale.

There is one bit of the story that did have me perplexed, and that had to do with the previously established idea that one someone grows up in Keyhouse, they forget the magic of the keys, because the adult mind simply can’t handle what those keys mean. In this volume, three adults, all Locke’s, actively and knowingly engage in episodes with they key items. We know that Randell Locke, and even Ellie Whedon, forgot about the keys once they became adults (Ellie being a bit of an exception later on, as we learn that she has been manipulated). However, in this short story, not only do the adults know about the keys, but one actively created a new key as a ‘birthday present’ to teach his daughter how to manage a house, but another actively utilizes the Shadow Crown to tell stories. Now, there could be a reason for that, but I felt that the establishment that only the young could understand, use, and see the power of the keys was an integral part of those whole story, and that going back on it seems a little heavy-handed for such a finely crafted story.

All in all, Locke and Key Small World was a decent return to the world that Hill and Rodriguez built, and it could be a promising connection to another series in that same world. However, it does have its pitfalls. Value wise, it seemed a bit much to through such a small story into hardcover. I know it has been done before, but it seems like they are leaving the world and the story out there to float on its own, without any truly secure mooring. The beauty of the art fills in where the story falls flat, but there are holes that were overlooked. I hope that when Hill and Rodriguez return again to this generation of Locke’s, they will be able to bring back more of the thrill and imagination that existed in the original series.

3.5/5 for me, all things considered. Still feels right to have in on the shelf next to the other hardcover editions of the series. but, for something that was announced with a fair bit of hype in June 2016, it seems fairly scanty on the delivery.

Order Locke & Key Small World

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Update, or, “I am pretty bad at this blog thing”

So, it has been a long time since my last update or post of any substance.

In the spirit of keeping with my commitment to this blog and the information on it, I am going to be fixing my lack of posting quite soon. In order to do this, I am going to look into scheduled posts, meaning I will set aside a certain day each week to provide a post.

This will be in keeping with my recent efforts to get back to the things that I enjoy the most, and doing more with my life than just going to work, coming home, and sleeping. Due to some recent events, I had put my goals of returning to school for more post graduate on the back burner. Not what I had really wanted to do, but certain things have made it so that I had commitments to stay were I was for a certain amount of time, on a rather vague schedule. But I am in the midst of getting those things handled, and hopefully will be getting myself to a point where if I needed to pick up and move in order to start a study program, it wouldn’t be a huge ordeal ( or at least a manageable ordeal).

That being said, I hope to start this process this week on  Thursday with “Last Thursday of the Month Review”, where I will pick a book/graphic novel/article which I have recently read and present a comprehensive review.

At the very least, I want to try to bring that commitment to one new post every week.

I am thinking of organizing this type of schedule on a weekly basis, where the frequency and timing would be directly related to the type of content. Likely reviews and ‘essay’ type articles would be one a month, while reflections, options, and creative writing would take place more frequently (due to the slightly less rigour requirements for posting formats.)

In summary, I am still alive, and I do want to continue to pursue what I originally set out to present with this blog. I want to provide focus on the academic side of popular culture and history, as well as the more creative and freeing side of creative and free form writing.

 

 

 

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Publication news!

So, it has been a considerable amount of time since my last post. Life has been a little busy, and I have let a few things fall by the wayside. However, there is exciting news. Quite some time ago I answered a call for entries for a new encyclopedia, focused wholly on amassing information and entries pertaining to Japanese horror cinema. The process was both educational and quite fun, considering it was absolutely right up my alley.

The initial research was a bit painstaking, as it took some time to find the various films and individuals who I chose for my entries (of course, these all came from a pre-established list set forth by the volume editor). With the media in hand, I set out to do my research, watching the films and doing my best to capture the themes, plot, and vital information that would be important to crafting my entries.

As with these things, there was a lot of down time between submission and review, but as of August 15th, 2016 (tomorrow, very exciting), this collection will be released.

In others words, I have been published alongside some of the more known names in the area of  Japanese popular culture and film studies (Like Jay McRoy, Jim Harper, Jeffrey Bullins, Joanne Bernardi, etc.)

It is really a remarkable collection of information. My particular entries focused on Actor, director, and icon Izumiya Shigeru, The Guinea Pig CollectionNoroi (2005), and Death Powder (1986).

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The Encyclopedia of Japanese Horror Films

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The Forest: A history of Japan’s “Sea of Trees”, Aokigahara

As a historian and horror enthusiast, I am always both excited and apprehensive when a horror film draws on the byline “Based on a True Story or True Events”, as so often that true story has been warped and torn in so many ways that the truth which inspired the initial horrific reaction is muted in favour of sensationalism and loud scream-y “jump out” moments. It’s why I am a much bigger fan for movies like “Gojira” and “The Devil’s Backbone” than I am for the mistake that was “The Chernobyl Diaries.” What is worse is the fabrication of horror films based on a completely fake history, or one that takes the tragic history of an event or location and renders it trivial, hidden behind the “story” that is created based on the stories based on the real experiences.

I have spent no small amount of time researching the history of such a place, that is about to reach an even wider audience that it has since the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s as a place of real tragedy.  Aokigahara, known as both “The Sea of Trees” and “The Suicide Forest”, is such a place. I am fascinated by the long history of tragedy, and of cultural association with death, that the forest has endured. On the North-facing slope of Mount Fuji, arguably one of the most iconic places, both spiritually and culturally for the people of Japan, lies a forest of trees so dense and old, that getting lost and never returning from within is not only a fear, but in fact an inspiration and a lure for those who have suffered the many trials of living in the modern world.

Peter Ten Hoopen, Dutch photographer on Aokigahara

Peter Ten Hoopen, Dutch photographer on Aokigahara

The forest has appeared in Japanese fiction, popular/pulp culture, manuals for death, and even been the subject of psychological study since the mid 20th century. Some are drawn by this very “macabre” culture, drawn by the accumulation of death and the forbidden idea. Others seek the loneliness of the forest to make their final escape from life, driven by depression, social pressure to succeed, financial hardship; it is there that they go to disappear, where the must feel that the burden they assume they carry will not pass on to others when they die. The forest also draws those who seek to help; signs caution those who seek to disappear that there are others who can help them, debt services, an ear to listen (Though mental health issues are still a major concern in Japan at this time, due both to stigma and to a lack of adequate supports within the healthcare system). Others, like Azusa Hayano, walk the forest in hopes of discovering the desperate before it is too late, to bring them back to the world and give them the help they need. However, there is a large chance that, venturing far enough into the densely packed forest, they will instead encounter the long missed remains of the very ones they want to help. Shoes, empty bottles and pill packets, and ropes are among the foliage. Where they cannot help the living, there are those who would seek to help the dead; Buddhist monks often dedicate time to walking the forest, either between the trees or around the perimeter, to pray for those departed, to offer their spirits a proper mourning, so that they will not return as ghosts to lure more individuals into the lullaby of death.

Since 2010, American producers and directors have released no less than 4 films which focus on Aokigaraha; all but one of these films is from the horror genre (Notably, 2015’s Gus van Sant film “The Sea of Trees”, seeks a different dramatic approach to the forest, and what it represents). Conversely, the most apparent title from Japan was released in 2013, titled “Aokigara”, and directed by Taku Shinjou, is also a drama/mystery, rather than a horror film. Coming alter this week is another addition to the horror genre’s repertoire starring Aokigahara. “The Forest“, directed by  Jason Zada, written by Ben Ketai, Nick Antosca, and Sarah Cornwell, and staring Natalie Dormer, is set to be released to North American theatres on January 8th, 2016. While The United States’ Golden Gate Bridge is similarly infamous as a site for suicide,  it has already received a rather intimate treatment as a documentary, while Aokigahara seems to feature more prominently in North American films as a “spooky haunted place of supernatural proportions.

While the intersection of horror and history is always interesting, there is something to be said about knowing the real history, and the cultural and social role that such places and stories have. Above everything, Aokihgahara is a place of tragedy, A place that must be understood, based on its long history in association with death and suicide. To merely see it as a “spooky forest”, a “supernatural hive of evil” or “that place where people go to kill themselves”, is a mistake. Aokigahara is much more, and its story should not be swept under the rug of theatrics and superficial scare moments and special effects (I can’t say anything for the movie plot itself yet, as I have not had the chance to see it, though I likely will see it shortly after release). While it is true that there are many who have ventured into the forest and never returned or been found, we cannot forget that they went to disappear, that they felt it was their last option. It must be remembered that this is not merely a place where the trees grow so close together that it is easy to lose your way, that without the proper navigational equipment you may be going in circles, or where the wind blowing through the branches may seem to call out for others to join the countless others who have walked through the trees before. It is a place of dep spiritual connection, of desperation, and of tragedy and loss. It indicated and highlights serious  social issues, and as such is a serious place, that must be given the respect it deserves.

Be warned, some might find this topic difficult to deal with, and this research is still in progress, as much of the more recent sources for historical comparison are not readily or easily obtainable. If the history of Aokigahara as a spiritual place, or as a suicide pilgrimage point does not interest you, I encourage you instead to watch either one or both of the documentaries linked at the bottom of the post, as they are informative both on the subject of Aokigahara, and the reality of suicide in Japan.


Photo credit: Rob Gilhooly

Photo credit: Rob Gilhooly

THE FATALISTIC PILGRIMAGE IN JAPAN

Aokigahara-jukai and the Translocation of Mount Fuji’s Sacred Identity

For the Japanese, Mount Fuji is a place of cultural and spiritual memory; it is the most recognized symbol of Japanese culture, and a spiritual beacon shrouded in mythology, mystery, and beauty which is unlike any other place in the world. In her late 19th Century travel letters, Isabella Bird described Fuji as a mountain of lonely majesty, and reports that she understood why it was so spiritually and culturally valued by the Japanese.1 While Mount Fuji is an awe-inspiring representation of natural beauty, it is not alone in the Fujigoko area in having a sacred identity. Caressing the North-Western flank of the mountain rests the 3,500 hectare forest of Aokigahara-jukai,2 called the Sea of Trees, but more popularly documented as ‘The Suicide Forest’. Aokigahara is a place that has been shaped as much by its spiritual associations as by its actual history. Left untouched by the push for Japanese modernity,3 Aokigahara has become the terminus for a macabre pilgrimage tradition, where despair and an eerie sense of foreboding permeate the atmosphere. Long associated with demons and yurei (ghosts),4 since the 1970’s the forest has become an infamous locale where weary Japanese venture in order to end their lives. Scholarly documentation concerning Aokigahara is sparse in comparison to the research that has been done concerning the spiritual and historical role of Fuji, but there is a strong cultural and spiritual connection between these two spaces.

Aokigahara shares in Fuji’s sacred identity in a very interesting manner, and also has its own associations with cultural memory that make it a pilgrimage location in its own right. However, while Fuji could in all likelihood continue to thrive and exist without the presence of Aokigahara, it might be argued that the forest requires the mountain in order to retain its identity and to be understood as a meaningful cultural space. However, due to the vast number of suicides, as well as the haunting atmosphere of the forest itself, Aokigahara has come to be considered the most haunted space in all of Japan.5 Fuji and Aokigahara are a linked space not only due to their proximity, but also because of shared history and the translocation of sacred identity. As will be argued, this allows such polar opposites of beauty and the macabre to be juxtaposed. Fuji and Aokigahara are two sides of the same coin; both are locked in cultural memory and steeped in spirituality, despite the differences in their individual identities.

Understanding Aokigahara-jukai’s appeal as a site of fatalistic pilgrimage first requires an investigation Fuji’s cultural identity as a sacred space. This will be achieved by looking at the sacred value of mountains in the Japanese culture, and particularly at the history of Fuji as a sacred space associated with death. Next, the concept of pilgrimage and the attitudes in regards to suicide in the Japanese culture will be examined. Finally, a closer look at the history of Aokigahara-jukai will reveal how history and association have shaped the forest into a pilgrimage site in Japanese cultural memory. Aokigahara provides pilgrims with a private space which Fuji, as a highly trafficked destination for both foreign tourists and Japanese, cannot. The forest is a sacred space, steeped in cultural memory, and creates a private locale where distraught, desperate, and despondent individuals can completely disappear.

In order to make the connection between sacred space and the pilgrimage which takes place in Aokigahara, the identity and history of Fuji must be briefly addressed. There is no question that Fuji played an important role in the creation of Japanese national and spiritual identity; it is historically one of the most sacred spaces in all of Japan. Despite the role Fuji played in nationalistic fervour during World War II,6 its reputation and importance remained unharmed and untainted even when General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (S.C.A.P.), forbade Japanese film directors from showing Fuji during the Occupation.7

The sacred and spiritual identity of Fuji was established by Shinto and folk tradition, which are based largely on reverence for nature and the natural world. Later, Buddhist practices in the area reinforced this sacred reverence by linking both the Buddhist paradises of Dainichi and Amida to the peak of the mountain.8 In establishing an understating as to why mountains, in particular Fuji, play such a role in Japanese spirituality, Edmond Rochedieu’s text Le Shintoïsme cites two important principles. First, Rochedieu states that the religious value of any mountain is based on its presence in daily life and practices.9 Considering that Japan’s geography is 70% mountainous,10 and that Fuji is still visible from Tokyo barring certain atmospheric conditions,11 it is not difficult to understand how mountains would take on a role of great sacred and spiritual power in early folk practices. A triumvirate of sacred association exists between Mount Fuji, Buddhist Bodhisattva’s,12 and Japanese kami. These associations allowed Fuji to retain its unique sacred and national identity in cultural memory despite the fluctuations in belief and national political sentiments over the course of Japan’s modernization.13 This can be argued to make Fuji a space which exists both in the capacity as a provider of identity, as well as a deeply important sacred icon, for the people of Japan.

Most importantly for the translocation of the sacred identity of Fuji onto Aokigahara, Rochedieu emphasizes that mountains were perceived as locations where it was possible to invoke the souls of the deceased.14 In the vicinity of Fuji, a place that also exists outside the mundane world, such a belief is supported by mythology, folk practices, and religious traditions. This triumvirate served to establish Fuji as a pilgrimage destination early on, as it provided the necessary spiritual, religious, and environmental connections. There are many small shrines dotting the area,15 in addition to the purification lakes used by those making the traditional Fuji pilgrimage.16 The whole area offers a great spiritual security, and can be understood as affirming a sense of belonging to the larger identity of Japan. However, the mountain itself is an open space, offering little privacy. Because of this lack of privacy, Fuji itself is not able to provide the proper atmosphere for the ultimate and final pilgrimage of one seeking to take his or her own life.

Byron Earhart’s Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan says that “through history Fuji has been celebrated more as a religious or sacred site and as a cultural and aesthetic ideal.”17 Social and religious history in Japan supports a wide variety of pilgrimage concerns, ranging from leisure pursuits to self-sacrifice. Also, pilgrimages of self-sacrifice are well documented in the history of Fuji. Take for example Jikigyo Miroku. He was the leader of a Fuji-centric Buddhist sect in the Edo period, and within his sect promoted Mount Fuji as “the pivot-stone of the Three Lands,”18 increasing its spiritual and cultural importance to a new level. Based on the idea that Mt. Fuji is the fulcrum of China, Japan, and India, Miroku scripted his suicide, planning to make the ultimate pilgrimage to the summit of Fuji. However, such action was forbidden by the shrine in control of the summit, Sengen in Fujinomiya, due to a spiritual concern that such a death would pollute and defile the purity of the mountain.19 With his original plan thwarted, Miroku chose instead to establish himself in a cave on the Northern slope of the mountain, above the Eboshi-iwa, or 7th station, facing the forest of Akiogahara.20 In 1733, Miroku committed himself to thirty-one days of fasting and meditation, and died as he had predicted.21 This choice of location is interesting, as it resembles a similar religious sacrifice which took place much earlier, inside the forest of Aokigahara. Historically, religious deaths, especially suicides and sacrifices by Buddhist teachers, were seen to “sever as models on which future deaths might be patterned.22 Based on this idea, it can be argued that since Miroku’s time the spiritual associations connected to Fuji have continued to evolve, with the mountain serving equally as a symbol of the sacred and place of cultural memory, as well as a beacon for the ideal death, as its connection with suicide, especially suicides committed for the salvation of others, dates back centuries.

When looking at the nature of pilgrimage traditions, it is important to note that the summit of Fuji is not always the ultimate goal, or the most significant space; the true goal of any Japanese pilgrimage lies in achievements of a more spiritual nature,23 and relies on the experience of some sort of cathartic personal realization.24 In addition, Buddhist thought dictates that the nature of a location in the natural world can aid in the escape from an aggressive karmic cycle.25 Because the forest is closely connected to Fuji, as well as an untouched piece of the natural world, Aokigahara-jukai is tantamount to a true pilgrimage; it is a sacred area associated with and sharing in Fuji’s identity, but designed to meet a different cultural and spiritual need. Where Fuji is a public space, Aokigahara has a haunting and intimate sense of privacy, as noted by those who venture into the forest as ‘tourists’, or to seek out the bodies of the dead.

When examining the fatalistic pilgrimage made to Aokigahara annually by dozens of Japanese,26 there are three additional mitigating factors which serve to validate the forest as a culturally and historically informed choice. The first is the Japanese attitude towards suicide. The second is the historical memories and religious ideas associated with death and Aokigahara. Finally there are contemporary influences, and physical geography which play a large role in perpetuating the individual identity of Aokigahara. Based on these factors, Aokigahara-jukai’s pilgrimage tradition, though macabre, can be shown to be rooted in history and ingrained in the cultural memory of the Japanese.

The historical attitudes toward suicide in Japan are very different from those held in the West. In Japan suicide is not considered illegal, or taboo, by religious or moral standards.27 Historically, suicide was sanctioned as a sacrificial act to prove loyalty and regain honour;28 it was accepted as an act of dedication and redemption and came to bear heavy influence on the sacrificial spirit attributed to the Japanese national identity.29 It was also historically viewed as a sacrifice that could be made in times of dire starvation, where the elderly or the infirm would lay their lives down in order to help their family survive, by becoming one less mouth to feed.30 Presently suicide is still believed to be an acceptable solution for a wide variety of social problems stemming from heavy societal pressures.31 In

Aokigahara-jukai, the number of documented suicides has gone from an average of 20 per year in the 1970’s,32 to 108 in 2004. 33 After this date, authorities hesitate to release numbers, in an effort to deter others from seeking to end their lives in the forest.34 An exact record of the number of deaths which take place in Aokigahara-jukai per year is difficult obtain, as it is believed that the bodies of many of those who are successful will not be found or recovered.35 Behavioural psychologist Takahashi Yoshitomo wrote in his 1988 case study of individuals that survived their suicide attempts in Aokigahara that those who choose the Aokigahara pilgrimage sought a quiet death in a place where they felt accepted as a member of a group, namely those who had also felt that their only choice lay in taking their own lives. He also states that they want to purify and beautify their death by committing their final act in the seclusion of this culturally important forest.36 This desire for purity and beautification can be argued to be closely associated with the sacred identity of Fuji, and the historical and cultural memories established between the living and the dead at such spiritual locations.37

Aokigahara is culturally connected with death, stemming from religious practice as well as local history. The first documented suicide in Aokigahara occurred four centuries prior to Miroku’s pilgrimage on Fuji. In 1340, a Buddhist monk named of Shohkai entered a cave within Aokigahara and began his ritual fast, saying that his sacrifice would liberate the people from their karmic transgressions.38 The records indicate that Aokigahara-jukai possesses its own deeply rooted cultural memory as a sacred pilgrimage location. Due to the number of important similarities, Shohkai’s actions can be argued to have influenced those later taken by Miroku: both men were devote Buddhist monks, chose the Northern area of Fuji, and committed their suicide through ritual fasting. It is important to note that there were many other religious suicides committed in such a manner.39 These religiously oriented suicides can be seen to serve as yet another justification for the pilgrimage to Aokigahara-jukai. The notion of karmic release from a sinful world,40 as created by these religious teachers, can be argued to strengthen the cultural memory of the forest as a place of great spiritual power.

While religious suicides are individually documented, Aokigahara was also the resting place for many rural and peasant people during the Sengoku Jidai (the Warring States Period; 1467-1603).41 War and bitter famine were common during this period, and it was to Aokigahara and the foot of Fuji that people brought the old and young who they could not feed.42 They hoped that through their sacrifice, the spirits would find rest and pacification in nature. This type of behaviour gave rise to Aokigahara’s ghoulish infamy as a haunted space, and is believed to have created a cyclical vortex of the dead drawing the living to final repose.43 As will be shown next, this historical association has largely influences to the manner in which contemporary media and art treats Aokigahara-jukai.

Contemporary media such as fiction and journalism have served to perpetuate the understanding of Aokigahara as a place of macabre sacred pilgrimage. Paired with modern religious and cultural ideas, such as the financial burden a suicide by train or a full Buddhist funeral places on the family, it is difficult to dispute Aokigahara’s treatment in stories and reports as a spiritual magnet and pilgrimage spot for those who have thought of suicide. According to modern Buddhists, such as Showzen Yamashita44 and Kyomyo Fukui,45 the spirits which linger in Aokigahara are actively “calling people [to the forest] to kill themselves.”46 Considering the rich and storied past the Japan has regarding the ghost story and the concerns regarding the proper treatment and mourning of the dead, such a phenomenon is not unheard of. It has been documented by notable writers and used a plot device in the creation of truly haunting ghost stories; This phenomenon appears in Lafcadio Hearn’s work In Ghostly Japan,47 as well as popular manga Kurosagi Shitai Takuhaibin (The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service).48 This phenomenon, the eerie sense of being pulled by some unseen force inside of Aokigahara, has also been by journalists who have ventured into the trees in an attempt to understand the suicide phenomena.49 When there exists so much cultural memory and history in a single space, it can be argued to have the ability to affect the minds and perceptions of those who are inclined to believe, and serve to shape the pilgrimage route into something more personally and spiritually meaningful. In this, there is a sense of the prevalence of pre-modern Japanese social and spiritual connection, where, as Moerman states, “the dead come to attract rather than to repel the living.”50 To this effect, modern Buddhist monks have taken to setting up

Photo credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

Photo credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

temporary alters in order to make offerings to pacify the spirits, and walk the woods in hopes that one day the spirits will stop drawing people to making this fatal and final pilgrimage.51 Journalists who have ventured in the Aokigahara often speak of the position in which bodies are found; while some hang from the tress, others are on their knees,52 a position associated with spiritual thought, and Buddhist meditation.

Popular media has played a role in the perpetuation of the social memory and associations of the Aokigahara pilgrimage. In 1960, author Seicho Matsumoto released his novel Nami no Tou, or Tower of Waves, in which the heroine makes a final trek into Aokigahara for the purpose of committing suicide.53 It is interesting to note that Matsumoto’s most controversial piece has been adapted for television multiple times since the 1970’s, echoing the fact that suicide in Aokigahara is still prevalent in Japan. In 1993, Wataru Tsurumi’s self-help book, Complete Suicide Manual, called Aokigahara the perfect place to die; this book has since been found with many bodies during the annual search of the forest.54 The appeal of Aokigahara-jukai is in the associated history of suicide, the proximity to a place of great spiritual importance, as well as the nature of the forest itself; Aokigahara is not on the agenda for innocent leisure hikes, family trips, or sightseeing due to the high probability that a scene of a past suicide will be discovered.55 There is a loneliness to Aokigahara, and a sense of belonging to something larger than self.56 This loneliness, previously attributed to Fuji by Isabella Bird, can be argued to provide a sense or separation from the mundane world, while establishing a strong connection to the sacred past and cultural memories.

Aokigahara thus exists as a place between reality and the spiritual; it is at once sacred, accessible, and isolated. Popular belief prior to World War II was that once one entered Aokigahara, here or she would be unable to find their way out,57 trapped in a perpetual twilight, with a limited field of vision which made it impossible to see the stars or even the peak of Fuji.58 In that place, one is completely cut off from the outside world and Aokigahara becomes a surreal space cut-off from the outside world,59 and haunted by a persistent, ever-growing history of death and cultural memories associated with despair and death. This belief is actually supported scientifically: the whole of Aokigahara-jukai is located on top of a lava plateau which formed after the 9th century eruption of Fuji.60 Due to the igneous nature of the ground, the high iron content creates an area of higher than normal magnetic activity,61 and makes the forest very difficult to navigate in comparison to other forests in Japan; it has been shown that within Aokigahara common commercial compasses do not function properly due to the higher level of magnetic activity.62 Based on this geographical anomaly, even the Jieitai (Japan Self-Defense Force or JSDF) admits that commercial equipment would be virtually useless one someone was lost within Aokigahara.63 All of these elements come together shape Aokigahara as a place of the lost and those who are seeking to not be found, and the earlier assertion that juxtaposition of identity and the translocation of the sacred identity of Fuji plays a large role in establishing Aokigahara in cultural memory, and influencing the idea and nature of the fatalistic pilgrimage is supported. With the added fact that navigation the forest is problematic, there is a much higher chance that the individual who has ventured to Aokigahara with the intention of committing suicide will not be found until long after they have died, if they are ever found at all.64

Cultural memory, history, and spirituality have all been factors in the creation and perpetuation of the Aokigahara-jukai pilgrimage. The forest presents an accessible and acceptable alternative to Mount Fuji; the forest shares in part of Mount Fuji’s sacred and cultural identity, and exists as a spot steeped in cultural memory. Aokigahara-jukai builds on the majestic loneliness ascribed to Fuji, and allows for pilgrims to find a deep association with Japan and Fuji’s deeper sacred aspects. While the prospect of a pilgrimage for the purpose of suicide is macabre, its existence is not only supported by historical predecessors, but it also served a require social function. Takahashi’s interviews with survivors of Aokigahara support his idea of psychogenic amnesia, by which he means that the trauma of the suicide attempt has caused the individual to be unable to recall their motivation.65 However, there are some survivors who site debt, depression, and anxiety due to the excessive social pressure to succeed as their reasons for attempting suicide within the forest.66 Though the inhabitants of local area towns express a desire for journalists to look beyond the macabre nature of the forest,67 there is still very little material in the media concerning the forest as a site of natural beauty. Aokigahara-jukai becomes much more than a lonely and beautiful forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, chosen due to its seclusion and infamy; it has become a refuge where connection can be established to cultural identity, and a sensation of belonging can be achieved.

1Isabella L. Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (San Francisco: Traveller’s Tales, Inc., 2000 [1880]), 2.

2Peter Hadfield, “Japan Struggles With Soaring Death Toll in Suicide Forest.” The Telegraph (Nov. 5, 2000).

3Yoshitomo Takahashi “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest.” Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour, Vol. 18 Issue 2 ( Summer 1988), 165.

4Zack Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan.

5Ibid.

6Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2011), 129.

7Ibid., 176-177.

8Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 27.

9Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme (Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968), 76.

10Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia, 2nd Ed (Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers, 2010), 4.

11 The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan. Eds. Richard Browning, and Peter Kornicki

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 9.

12Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan , 7.

13Ibid., 178-182.

14Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme, 76.

15Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

16 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 7.

17 Earhart, “Preface: Invitation to Fuji.” Mount Fuji: Icon of, XVII.

18 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 55.

19Ibid., 53.

20Ibid.

21Ibid.

22Bryan J. Cuevas, and Jacqueline I. Stone, “Introduction.” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 19.

23 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 143.

24Antonio Santos, “Hiroshima, mon amour: An Inner Pilgrimage to Catharsis.” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan, eds. Maria Rodriquez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez (New York: Routledge, 2007), 131.

25 Peter Ackermann, “Pilgrimages in Japan: How far are they determined by deep-lying assumption?” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan, 99.

26Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Communities. ( August 19, 2012).

27Rob Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.” The Japan Times Online (January 26, 2011), 2.

28 Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme, 184.

29 Boyé Lafayette De Menth, Japan Unmasked: The Character of Culture of Japan (Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2005), 94.

30 Whether a myth or reality, the practice of ubasute (Parent abandonment) exists, whereby a family member, elderly or infirm, would be left or sacrifice themselves to a mountain or forest to slowly die in times of starvation and drought in order to alleviate the burden they placed on their families. The Ballad of Narayama (1968 dir. Keisuke Kinoshita, 1983 dir. Shohei Imamura) depicts a mother encouraging her son to help her sacrifice herself on a mountain so that she will no longer be a burden.

31 Louis G. Perez, The History of Japan, 2nd Ed. (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009), 212.

32Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

33 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest”, 2.

34 “Suicide Forest”, Studio 360 (Japan). January 8, 2010

35Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.”

36Yoshitomo Takahashi, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, Vol. 18 Issue 2 (Summer 1988): 172-173.

37D. Max Moerman, “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Premodern Japan” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations, 285.

38Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

39 Ibid.

40Ibid.

41“Japan’s Harvest of Death,” The Independent

42Ibid.

43Ibid.

44Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 2.

45“Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday, October 24, 2000).

46Ibid.

47Lafcadio Hearn. In Ghostly Japan (Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971 [1889]), 238.

48Otsuka Eiji,Delivery #4: Waltz” in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 3 (Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2004), 141-191.

49 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest”, 1.

50 Moerman, “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Pre-modern Japan”, 267.

51 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

52Ibid.

53Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest”. 166.

54 Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.”

55Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

56Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 174.

57 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

58Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

59Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

60Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

61Ibid., 166.

62Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

63Zack Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan.

64Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Communities. ( August 19, 2012).

65Yoshitomo “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest, 167-173.

66Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest,” 1-2.

67“Japan’s Harvest of Death” The Independent

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Otsuka, Eiji. “Waltz.” The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Volume 3. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2004.

Perez, Louis G. The History of Japan. 2nd Ed. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Rochedieu, Edmond. Le Shintoisme. Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968.

Santos, Antonio. “Hiroshima, mon amour: An Inner Pilgrimage to Catharsis.” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. eds. Maria Rodriguez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez. London: Routledge, 2007. pp. 130-137.

Sesana, Laura. “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Community. Aug. 19, 2012. http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/world-our- backyard/2012/aug/19/aokigahara-japans-suicide-forest/

Takahashi, Yoshitomo. “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest.” Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour. Vol. 18. Issue 2, 1988. pp.164-175.

Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia. 2nd Ed. Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers, 2010.

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Lest We Forget: Canada at Passchendaele

‘There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn. Death was written large everywhere.’ (Private R.A. Colwell, Passchendaele, January 1918)

This year is a very important year; it marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Throughout the year, schools, museums, and a variety of other institutions have been hosting lectures and exhibits with the focus of remembering the Great War, those who fought, and the changes which it caused.

Passchendaele was one of the definitive battle of World War I, especially for the Canadian soldiers who had answered both the call to serve their country and to serve the British Empire. Against great adversity, the Canadian troops came to be known as the best shock troops on the Western Front, breaking lines that neither the French nor British troops had been able to. Passchendaele was also one of the bloodiest confrontations; known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the landscape had been torn apart by the artillery shelling from both sides. This, paired with heavy rain, left the battle field a muddy landscape of broken and skeletal trees, and pits filled with water, mud, and blood.

I prepared this research presetation a couple of years ago when taking a graduate level course on Canada’s involvement in World War I, both on the Western Front and on the home front. Find in it an overview of the Canadian role at Passchendaele, the realities of war, first hand accounts of the battlefield, the goals, and the outcomes, links to archival and historical information, and links to further video information.

Clicking on the link below with download a .pdf file of the presentation.

Canada at Passchendaele

As a Canadian, this particular battle strikes a chord of pride and sorrow within my memory; many lives were lost, and yet in the end there was a triumph (of sorts), when the Canadian troops managed to reclaim the town of Passchendale. On this day, which saw the end of the war in 1919 (well, the Armistice, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the official end of the war), I would like you all to take a moment to either re-learn, or to learn for the first time, about the sacrifices made in World War One. While we choose this day, the 11th of November, to commemorate all soldiers who have made the sacrifice for their country, I would like us to also remember the initial reason for the commemorative ceremonies which take place on this day. For Canada, World War I was a watershed moment, an event which proved that we could stand toe to toe with the world and its problems, and that we could do it in a way which could make our country, our citizens, and our allies proud.

Lest we Forget.

M.

To learn more about Canada and World War I, especially the lives of those who came from my hometown, I would suggest reading For All We Have and Are: Regina and the Experience of the Great War by Dr. James Pitsula. He is a wonderful historian, and a truly wonderful man, and I have had the fortune to have been both his student and his Teaching Assistant.

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The Tragic Tale of Lady Oiwa and Adapting the Onryō for a Contemporary audience

UPDATE: It has recently come to my attention that this article has been added to a recommended reading list by  a couple of education programs, in relation to Drama and performance. If you are coming here from those sites and you have any questions, or if you are the library resources staff updating the links, please feel free to contact me at negrych @ gmail dot com. I always love talking with students and educators.

As a student, and as a Japanese historian, I have always been intrigued by the role that folklore and storytelling has played in Japanese culture. This is especially true when it comes to the Japanese traditional ghost story and contemporary Japanese horror; something about them always seems more rich, somehow, than our own North American tradition. Japan has always had a rich literary, theatrical, and cinematic relationship with its ghosts and its tales of horror; from Noh and Kabuki to the popular film and literature traditions of today, many of Japan’s traditional ghosts and spirits have been re-invented within the confines of our contemporary cultural understandings to reflect the shift in cultural and social perceptions of horror, tragedy, and the macabre. Fears of being set back on the karmic cycle have been largely replaced by fears of rampant technological advances (something which I investigated in-depth, and continue to be fascinated with), and key literary figures have been reshaped; where once the kuchi-sake-onna, or slit-mouthed woman, used to hold a fan to her face when meeting strangers, now she is depicted as wearing a medical face mask. However, one figure which remains a cultural constant is that of the onyrō, or vengeful spirit, a woman who was so wronged in life that she returned to torment those who caused her suffering. But how have the rampant and face-paced cultural and social changes reflected on the manifestation of these figures in popular culture? That is what I seek to explore in the following essay, which focuses on two popular manifestations of the Japanese onyrō.

The Tragic Tale of Lady Oiwa

One of my favourite stories is that of Lady Oiwa; I was introduced a few years ago to this particular folktale/kabuki play by a religious studies professor. Here was a folktale, a creation of history and popular culture so popular that it has inspired multiple recreations. Within it, a figure so tragic and so powerful that any who participate in a staging of her story, and especially those cast as lady Oiwa, would seek the place of her burial (which may or may not actually exist) to ask for her blessing to retell the story, or suffer their own tragedy (there is a series of accounts that tell of the misfortune that befell those who tried to stage the Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan play without first asking her permission and blessing, and were met with a string of ‘Macbeth’ like bad luck). It is a tale of tragedy, betrayal, vengeance, and the problems that dishonourable behaviour can cause.

The ghost of oiwa

For those of you who have never encountered the tragic tale of Lady Oiwa and the Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, the story goes a little something like this: There was a masterless samurai (Iemon)who had fallen on hard times, forced to make his living as an umbrella maker (historically true during the Edo period, when many samurai lost their livelihood due to the widespread peace created by unifying the country under Tokugawa Ieyasu.)  Oiwa was frail and weak after giving birth to her son, and was unable to help Iemon with the household; nevertheless, she did what any proper wife could do, she looked after their son and made sure that she was beautiful whenever Iemon came home, brushing her long silken black hair and being as dutiful a wife as she could be under the circumstances. However, because of Iemon’s failure, Oiwa’s father approaches him, and suggests that he dissolve the marriage bonds and allow Oiwa to return to her own family. Enraged, Iemon murders Oiwa’s father. There is more to this, a second story, wherein another man, Takuetsu,  accidentally murders his former master (in a tragic case of mistaken identity), and he and Iemon conspire to make it look like the second murdered man was the one who killed Oiwa’s father, and thus Iemon has succeeded in avenging that death and can continue to live as an honourable man, instead of the failure he has become.

Now, Iemon was a handsome fellow, and in his journeys he had caught the eye of a local lady of means, Oume, the grand-daughter of a prominent and successful man. In a scheme to separate Iemon from the more beautiful Oiwa, this woman and her family conspire to destroy Oiwa’s beauty; they do so by sending her poison disguised a facial cream, which immediately scars Oiwa’s beautiful face and causes her beautiful hair to come out in bloddy clumps. As a result Iemon, seeing his wife’s disfigurement, conspires to invalidate the marriage by having  Takuetsu rape Oiwa. In a strange break from his previously dishonourable behaviour, Takuetsu cannot bring himself to commit the act; instead, he forces Oiwa to look at her own reflection. Seeing what she has become, she grabs Iemon’s rusty and disused katana and tries to leave the home in order to avenge the wrong that has been committed against her, only to accidentally slit her own throat in the struggle. As a result, she dies cursing Iemon and those who conspired against her with her last breath. Coming home, Iemon wants to cover the death of his wife and hide the crimes committed against her, tries to hide it. Some versions of the story go on to say that the baby is also killed, and to cover his ‘new wife’, Iemon nails Oiwa and a servant to a door and tosses them in a river, declaiming them for having an affair.

With Oiwa out of the way, Iemon and Oume get hitched and plan to live happily ever after, or as happily as two despicable murdering individuals can plan to live. What all stories agree upon is that, after her death, Oiwa’s ghost returns to haunt Iemon, causing him to have horrible visions and resulting in him murdering Ouma and her grandfather. Did I mention that Iemon’s happy new union did not even manage to survive its first night? No matter how Iemon tries to escape, Oiwa always finds him, emerging from lanterns, long black hair matted, one side of her face horribly disfigured, and carrying their dead child. Eventually Iemon winds up at a monastery in an attempt to escape her vengeance, but even there Oiwa cannot be stopped, and eventually drives Iemon to madness and his death.

Adapting the Onryō:

The Evolution of the Edo Period Tale Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan in Hideo Nakata’s Adaptation of Ringu

When it comes to popular and enduring icons of onryō in Japanese kaidan, there is no idiom more accurate than the popular ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ From the early 19th century’s Lady Oiwa from the kabuki play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (東海道四谷怪談, 1825)1 to present day Sadako from Ringu (リング, 1998),2 no figure evokes more trepidation, fear, and anxiety than that of the vengeful female ghost, known in Japan as the onryō. However, over time there have been changes made to the nature of the behaviour and depiction of the onryō and the way in which vengeance is administered. At the same time, many aspects remain unchanged, and these are indicative of the deeper cultural concern with the kaidan. These differences and similarities are seen when examining Lady Oiwa, and Sadako Yamamura in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, a film adapted from the first novel of Koji Suzuki’s Ring Cycle series. Both of these tales gained widespread fame and attention, and thus ignited interest in the Japanese tale of the vengeful ghost across generations.3 These meeting and divergence points make it possible for the onryō to have as much of an impact in contemporary settings and for a contemporary audience as in earlier incarnations.

 

Lady OiwaGregory Barrett notes that in Japanese tales of revenge, the one seeking vengeance is typically a woman who has been wronged in some way.4 Despite the time between the original Kabuki play and Ringu, there is very little alteration in the nature of onryō‘s appearance and gender, save for a shift in age from adult to child. Furthermore, Lady Oiwa and Sadako are similarly dressed in flowing white garments, a colour understood to represent death in many Asian cultures; both women also have long black hair, and possess a physical beauty at odds with their manifestations as onryō. It is interesting that Sadako and Oiwa share in the loss of their hair, and the disfigurement of their faces.5 In most incarnations of Yotsuya Kaidan, the journey to vengeance begins which Lady Oiwa losing her hair; because she has been poisoned, when Oiwa attempts to prepare herself to act dutifully as Iemon’s wife “handfuls of raven black hair fell from her head.”6 Likewise, when Sadako’s body is found in the well beneath the cabin, her hair is still intact after a 40 years. However, as Reiko handles Sadako’s corpse Sadako’s hair peels away from the skull, leaving only putrefied flesh and bone. Yet, when Sadako’s spirit appears to exact her vengeance, her hair is still there, obscuring everything except a single protruding eye. This serves to make Sadako an unsettling figure of the unknown.

The second most notable similarity lays in the form of their betrayal. In both cases, there is a heavy association with water; after Oiwa’s body is found Iemon discards it, in order to escape his guilt. To so this “a wooden door was found and [Iemon] nailed a corpse on either side . . . cold-bloodedly, [Iemon] heaved the wooden door into the river.”7 Like Oiwa, Sadako is committed to a watery grave, trapped there and deprived on spiritual pacification which is due to the dead. Furthermore, both women were betrayed by those who were supposed to support and protect them; Iemon is a neglectful husband to Oiwa. He fails to take his responsibilities as husband seriously, instead choosing wealth and beauty over honour. This is furthered by the fact that Iemon is responsible for the murder of Oiwa’s father, which he committed in order to keep Oiwa as his wife.8

In Ringu, Sadako’s mother, Shizuko, commits suicide after being humiliated by reporters during a public display of her clairvoyant powers, jumping into the crater of Mt. Mihara; it was Shizuko’s ability to accurately predict the eruptions of Mt. Mihara that brought her to the attention of Dr. Ikuma, whose desire to display her psychic powers ultimately led Shizuko to take her own life. This same event also brought out Sadako’s powers, causing her to kill one of the reporters who claimed her mother’s powers to be fraudulent. After this, Dr. Ikuma becomes Sadako’s guardian; due to his fear of her, born from her own destructive supernatural powers, Ikuma throws her into a well, hoping that she will disappear forever, and becomes the catalyst for the creation of Sadako’s onryō.9 The film does not do much to establish Ikuma’s role in Sadako’s life, only that he abandoned his responsibility and was one of the catalysts for Sadako’s change into an onryō after her slow and gruesome death.

There are many differences between the Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan and the adaptation of Ringu, reflecting the changes that have occurred in order to keep tales of vengeance and onryō appealing and unsettling. The most important of these changes occurs in the nature of the targets of the onryō‘s vengeance. While Lady Oiwa is a vengeful spirit who “would only torment the guilty and leave the innocent alone,”10 In contrast, Sadako is indiscriminate and takes after all those who come contact with the site of her betrayal, as she felt she had been betrayed by everyone with whom she had ever had contact with. This is a return to earlier Noh conventions, where ghosts bare vague grudges,11 and take their anger out on any bystander.12 In opposition, Lady Oiwa is focused on bringing pain and death only to those who were involved in her downfall and betrayal. Sadako’s unlimited anger is for the benefit of the audience, allowing them to experience fear and anxiety similar to older kaidan audiences. This also stops the audience from seeing Sadako as an avenging hero, and instead makes her a true threat in the minds of the audience.

Sadako from 1999's manga adaptation. Art by Misao Inagaki

Sadako from 1999’s
manga adaptation. Art by Misao Inagaki

The second difference between Oiwa and Sadako exists in the very nature of their character; while Oiwa has a voice, and is given means to express her feelings, Sadako is a silent haunter, with no voice or opinion. Not once is Sadako’s voice heard, and never is anything more than a ring of light seen from her point-of-view; in essence, she is the unknown. While flashbacks inform the audience of her history, all Sadako is given is a pattern of actions propelled by her unyielding thirst for retribution. This pattern serves to set her further apart from Lady Oiwa; Sadako is guilty of sinful actions, while Oiwa is sinless.13 The movie implies that Sadako is the product of a fantastical birth; there is speculation made throughout the film that Shizuko was lured down to the ocean by some unknown creature and the result of that relationship was Sadako who, as a result of this union, possessed psychic powers beyond that of her mother.14 The only blood on Lady Oiwa’s hands is her own,15 and suicide was glorified as an act of redemption.16 Sadako, on the other hand, has taken life other than her own; during a flashback, it is insinuated that she was responsible for the death of a reporter, and it is from this point that others truly begin to fear her abilities. Once again, this difference instills unease and fear in the audience, on a level reminiscent of the way Lady Oiwa’s onryō would have made the kabuki audience feel.

Sadako is almost a complete unknown in the film adaptation of Ringu, while Lady Oiwa is the polar opposite in almost all incarnations of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. The similarities that remain between them are the sake of convention, a reminder that at one time it was believed that such an avenger was given power for the sole sake of exacting vengeance for wrongs committed against them. The differences are created in order to evoke a similar feeling for the audience, one which leaves them uneasy and frightened. With modern society quickly becoming desensitized to violence and horror, the psychological Japanese film must adapt in order to instill the same anxiety as such onryō and kaidan instilled in the past. Ringu must also be evaluated as an adaptation in order to truly understand the evolution of kaidan; the film adaptation of Ringu and its depiction of Sadako is a completely different beast from what Koji Suzuki created in his novel. It is no secret that author Koji Suzuki’s novel is a much more in-depth study of modern adaptation of the Kaidan conventions, the evolution of the onryō as a vengeful spirit, and as a product of widespread cultural change.


 Footnotes:

1 This is the date for the first public performance of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan; however, the play itself is based on events which occurred in the 17th Century.
2 The original tale, Ring, was a novel written by Koji Suzuki in 1991. Subsequently it was adapted into a television film in 1995 (Ring: Kanzenban), a feature horror film in 1998 (Ringu) directed by Hideo Nakata, and finally into English (The Ring) in 2002. Additionally, it has spawned a series of sequels in the franchise.
3 Ringu‘s success is apparent in the fact that it has been adapted multiple times, in a variety of forms, and over a variety of cultures (American and South Korean). Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan‘s popularity is apparent due to the many adaptations and re-tellings it has been subjected to over the years since its initial debut as a Kabuki play; this includes customary visits to Lady Oiwa’s grave marker prior to any new adaptations being staged, multiple film and anime versions, and her popularity among figures of ghosts and women in ukiyo-e prints.
4 Gregory Barrett, “Vengeful Spirit” in Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1989), 7.
5 In the case of Sadako, one never sees more of her face than a single, bloodshot eye, while Lady Oiwa is characterized by heavy scarring and disfigurement, a result of the poison she unknowingly ingested.
6 Arendie Herwig, “A Ghost at Yotsuya on the Tokaido” in Heroes of the Kabuki Stage: An Introduction to Kabuki with Retellings of Famous Plays Illustrated by Woodblock Prints (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004), 298.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 297.
9 Here is where the film adaptations really differs from the novel; in the novel Dr. Ikuma becomes quite ill and is committed to a sanatorium, where he convinces a young doctor that his daughter, Sadako, must be killed because of her power. This leads the young doctor to pursue Sadako and, when subjected to her powers, to strangle her and throw her down a near-by well. However, when she was thrown down the well she was still alive, and her death came slowly as she tried to claw her way out. This death is what gave birth to the onryō, who had been wronged or abandoned by every individual with whom she had come in contact.
10 Barrett, 97.
11 Ibid., 99.
12 Ibid., 97.
13 Ibid., 101.
14 Again, this varies greatly from the novel; originally Sadako was the daughter of Shizuko and Dr. Ikuma, conceived during an illicit extra-martial affair.
15 Herwig, 298.
16 Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme ( Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968), 184.

Works Cited

Barrett, Gregory. “Vengeful Spirit.” Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1989. pp. 97–117.

Herwig, Arendie. “A Ghost Story at Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō.” Heroes of the Kabuki Stage: An Introduction to Kabuki with Retellings of Famous Plays Illustrated by Woodblock Prints. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004. pp. 297–299

Rochedieu, Edmond. Le Shintoisme. Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968.

 

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